Valerie Laken's Dream House is that rare thing: A truly literary novel that just happens to have a compelling story to tell.
On the surface, its characters have little in common. Just one thing, actually: an unassuming old house on a tree-lined street in Ann Arbor, Mich. Using nuanced, lovely prose, Laken shows us the place from each person's perspective.
Kate comes from a striving, perfectionist family who'd rather buy a new McMansion than fix up a quirky place with bad wood paneling. They don't get what she sees in the house, and neither does her overgrown kid of a husband, Stuart.
But to Kate the house represents the value of hard work, a bright future, the fresh feeling of starting over -- every permutation of the American dream rolled into one. The moment they move in, she begins gutting it, pulling down the walls in order to do them over again, make them new.
But the house has a history that no amount of remodeling can undo. Some 20 years prior, a murder took place there, a family tragedy that dismantled someone else's dream of movin' on up. And Walker, the guy who has just gotten out of prison for committing the crime, isn't ready to let go of his past -- or of the house itself.
In a sense, Dream House -- which has been praised in The New York Times, and won the Wisconsin Council of Writers Anne Powers Award as 2009's best novel -- is a classic haunted-house story.
"It's not an ominous, Where's that phantom creaking coming from? sort of book," Laken said in an e-mail interview. "But each character in the book is haunted, not by actual ghosts but by the kinds of things that haunt us all: regrets, mistakes, wounds, impossible desires."
Laken admits to having the home-improvement compulsion herself. In fact, the seeds for the novel were planted while she refurbished the old house she bought in a historic neighborhood of ... Ann Arbor.
"I liked imagining all the various generations of people who put their sweat into the house, as well as their dreams," says Laken, who now teaches at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I could never have written the book without that house."
Laken is currently working on a collection of short stories, some set in Russia, where she once lived and worked as a translator. But on Fri., April 2, she'll read from Dream House at the Gist Street Reading Series.
"We keep being told we readers are a dying breed, and it's easy to believe that and get discouraged," says Laken. "But then you walk into a beautiful, thriving reading series like Gist Street and realize you're not alone at all."
Valerie Laken and poet James Allen Hall at the Gist Street Reading Series. 8 p.m. Fri., April 2. James Simon sculpture studio, 305 Gist St., Uptown. $10. www.giststreet.org